Sunday, August 14, 2011

Japan FTW! Onmyouza!

The threat we are facing is serious.  It's no longer merely Godzilla.  Japanese music, animation, and culture have invaded America!  Okay, so that's a bit dramatic, but during the last 25 years or so, Japanese culture and entertainment has slowly crept into the collective consciousness of the Western world.  During the 1980's there were Japanese culture flirtations in the form of the Robotech anime and some Japanese rock/metal (namely X and Loudness), though those have remained largely niche.  The mid-1990's saw a much more dramatic influx of Japanese culture with more widespread distribution (thanks to companies like Manga and Bandai Entertainment) of Japanese anime, which then brought to attention of Western fans the phenomenon of Asian pop idols in the form of J-Pop music.  This was everything from the goofiest, corniest J-Pop known to man included in some of the more off-beat anime, to more life-like J-Pop like that of "CHAM!" in the Perfect Blue anime film (Satoshi Kon, FTW!).


The Anime industry in America (in particular) has blossomed over the last decade and a half as a result of this, and the advent of the Internet has only increased this and made anime more prevalent.  No longer is it just Pokemon or DragonBall Z (blech!), but with SyFy channel's "Ani-Monday" and Cartoon Network often having more sophisticated and wide-ranging anime (everything from Gundam Wing to InuYasha to Trigun and beyond) of varying genres and styles. Landmark anime films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell have become well-respected by many serious film buffs, and anime on the whole is taken more seriously by Western culture in general.

Other Japanese cultural aspects have taken longer to "catch on", like cosplay, Japanese films (now becoming a legitimate niche in America), and in particular, Japanese music.  Apart from a handful of Japanese artists or bands, Asian music in general just hasn't caught on, likely due to the giant domination of the American "music" machine dictating to us what music we like and want to hear.  While that machine has served its purpose and has indeed brought some good music to the masses, I am not one to simply eat what's fed to me unless I have no other choice.  I prefer to pick my own meals when I have any opportunity to do so.

Being the nerd that I am, I probably exist in the nether space between being "up" on Japanese music and not.  I'm not sure if that means I'm either not hip enough, or perhaps too hip to be into bands like Sigh, Dir en grey, or Versailles yet.  But for all of the Japanese bands I have yet to discover, I have taken to one that I feel is the is the pinnacle of what Japanese music is and should be when it comes to talent and creativity.  Onmyouza (also sometimes spelled as Onmyo-za or Onmyosza) is a band that is lumped in with the "Visual Kei" or "Visual Style" movement, and that much is valid, but they're so much more than just a band dressing up in traditional Japanese garb with long hair and androgynous looks.

My wife says they ALL look like girls, but I know better :)

Onmyouza is a highly talented, overtly creative and prolific heavy metal machine.  Since the band's inception in the late 90's, they've recorded 9 full-length studio albums and 1 EP, released 8 concert videos/DVDs, participated in a split video project with 3 other bands, and released 16 singles, along with 2 live albums, a singles/hits compilation, and a boxed set containing the bulk of the recorded works that also includes 2 b-sides CDs and a DVD with all their music videos.  DO WANT!!!  Unfortunately, King Records either hasn't pursued or sufficiently found distribution in the West for niche product like this, so importing is rather expensive.  My collection of the band's last 5 albums and the Wagashikabane Wo Koeteyuke 
DVD was quite a chunk of change to purchase over a year ago.  CDs that would normally cost $15 USD at any store in America are suddenly nearly twice that to import, and the DVD was a staggering $54 USD to import!



"Sweet Dreams" was written by the Eurythmics before this boxset came out, so we'll let them slide (this once) for not mentioning it.

By contrast, here's my meager sampling:
Yes, you should all be jealous of my small, but prestigious collection!




Onmyouza released their 1st album in 1999, and in the 10 years following they have recorded a string of successful albums (commercially AND artistically).  Their concerts, while not as big a production as KISS, are a sight to behold, as evidenced by the DVD I have, as well as videos you can find on YouTube of the many other concerts they've filmed.  One of my dreams, assuming I can afford to do so before they hang it up, is to travel to Japan and see them live in concert.  I'm not sure if I'll fulfill that dream, but I hope that financial concerns won't prevent me from at least trying.  Of course, that's not the only reason to visit Tokyo, but for me it's certainly a priority reason.

So what's all the fuss about Onmyouza, you may say?  Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up:
  1. Onmyouza has a female lead singer.  Now before anyone cries foul and says, "But so does Nightwish/Seraphim/Lunatica/" let me say that few vocalists can compare to the likes of the lovely and talented Kuroneko.  She is a powerful singer with great range and versatility, a great sense of dynamics, and fabulous control over her instrument.  Watching the DVD and other live concert footage of the band, it's apparent that when performing live, she is so on-point vocally that it's almost scary.
  2. The band breathes much-needed life into the genre of traditional metal by bringing in some Japanese melodic sensibility and traditional melodies, by utilizing both female vocals and male vocals (bassist and band leader Matatabi handles most of this), by throwing in some occasional gruff/growl vocals for effect, and by having such a sense of drama about their whole presentation that it just takes it to the next level.
  3. While I'm the first guy that will say it doesn't matter what you wear on stage if you play well and captivate the audience with your songs, that doesn't apply to Onmouza because they make their whole "Visual Kei" look/feel an integral element to their music and visual appeal.  Not that Japanese guys with long hair that look like women in their photoshoots is particularly "appealing", but then the band takes its look from dress and style that was popular in Japan quite a long time ago, well before music of their kind was even a thought.  And they don't go over-the-top with their look, either.  It's clean, specific, and generally consistent from one performance to the next.
  4. Let's not forget the songs!  This is a band that not only has full command of their instruments, but they also have studied years of heavy metal and understand what it takes to write good songs.  They are hooky, both musically and vocally (quite a feat, considering I don't know a lick of Japanese and I find myself stumbling on the words singing along), and they take the best elements of the bands they emulate (Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are two chief influences) while throwing plenty of their own flavor in for good measure.  In addition, their range is impressive, from fun, swingin' songs that are very "up" to dark, brooding pieces that ooze drama.
I've been singing the praises of this band for the last 2 years but it seems like no one is listening.  Why, I have no idea, as this amazing group is just too good to go unnoticed and unappreciated by the metal masses.  I know I'm not the band's only fan in the US, because I've read album reviews and comments by others, but they simply don't have enough of a following here in the states.  Some metal band (Iron Maiden perhaps?) needs to take this band out for a full US tour and really blow the doors off the American metalhead populace, because I think if folks knew what they were missing, they'd flip out and realize that Japan has been hiding this goldmine of awesomeness in their country far too long.  I shall end this post the only way I can think how - with music videos that shows the band at their best. Watch and learn, people.


"Nemuri" from "Mugen Hoyou"

"Basilisk" from an anime soundtrack

"Kokui no Tennyo" from "Maou Taiten"

"Aoki Dokugan" from "Kongo Kyubi"

"Konpeki no Soujin", a sequel to "Aoki Dokugan"

"Kumikyoku Yoshitsune- Raise Kaikou" from "Garyotensei"

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